Review by Danny Gaisin
Hannah Moscovitch is an acclaimed young Canadian writer with a plethora of awards that are not only impressive but especially so given her (almost) tender years. For Theatre Erindale and its director Anita La Selva to decide on staging THIS IS WAR is more than just a challenge, it is a gamble! The play may run only ninety minutes long but for the quartet on stage; and especially for the audience; this is an exceptional demand. The plot-line concerns four Canadian Armed Forces grunts deployed to Afghanistan who have just completed a joint operation with the local militia and it appears that a slaughter may have occurred.
The set, designed by Leslie Wright is a bleak and spare bivouac ‘in country’, away from any of the niceties afforded the commissioned ranks. La Selva presents the play as interactions between the soldiers and also through flashbacks and a clever square bright spotlight, testimony and debriefings as though we the audience are officiating at a courts martial. Differing interpretations; vocal mannerisms and especially the psychological effect of the mission are presented to us with all the warts and naturalness of reality…scatology NOT bleeped!
“SNAFU”, is a well-known WWII acronym for “Situation Normal, all fucked Up” and having experienced combat over sixty years ago, Snafu, or its more recent “FUBAR” definitely emphasizes the truth behind the quote. When the bullets fly, everyone gets religion; lower stomach, kidneys and sometimes bowels misbehave. The noise, peripherals, and rush of adrenaline become a cacophony of terror. Time seems to stands still. Then, one’s immediate world turns 180°. Obviously, re-witnessing the cast members iterating their own impressions had a visceral effect on this scribe.
The fastidious directorial attention to detail as well as her subliminal contribution (the projected shadows on the tents) and clever blocking make this a thespian tour de force but certainly for adults only. Even the adults have to be able to appreciate that military types during stress may not use the “golly’s”, Gee Whiz’s or ‘dear me’ expletives. The emotional and sexual relationships are hyper-activated given the life threatening situation all around. La Selva has her charges utilize military codings, abbreviations and acronyms without patronizingly explaining same for the uninitiated. Thus, what is happening appears totally realistic and credible.
Private Jonny Henderson is the emotional, naive and least mature member of the foursome. Ben Caldwell is superb in his role interpretation. He’s believable and immediately gleans the empathy of the audience, especially those who are parents of 20-year old sons. The hormonal level of development and psychological growth are not yet at apex. We all worry about and for him.
The two sergeants are Max Ackerman and Joshua Sidlofsky. This duo are diametrically opposite in sense of responsibility and understanding of their own military roles and protocols. Both come across as forthright and genuine. Its almost as if we are seeing them being themselves. Thus their testimonies ring true.
The pivotal role is that of Master Corporal Tanya Young. As portrayed by terrifically talented Fuschia Boston, her interpretation of the role is multi-faceted. Her maternal instincts, sexuality, and comprehension of her rank’s position are all reflected in her dialogue; stance, facial expressions and emotional states.
THIS IS WAR requires the audiences full attention in order to follow and appreciate the significance of the repetitions and flashbacks. Understanding the subtle symptoms of PTSD and acknowledging the thespian difficulty in convincingly monologuing testimonies a few feet from the audience demonstrates the level that UTM brings to its graduating students. It may be only an hour and a half, but it will be a period that will stay within one’s memory, and reignite thoughts of Bosnia; Mi Lai etc. Sometimes even good people do bad things!